Emigration pressures Spain

Spain will spend more than $21 million this year in job subsidies to Latin Americans.

For 50 years, Cristina Barros lived in the same middle-class neighborhood in Córdoba, Argentina. But last year, she came to an agonizing choice: She would have to leave Argentina, or face penury.

Like thousands of other Latin Americans of Spanish ancestry, Ms. Barros returned to Spain – for the same reasons their forbears had once left it: to escape political and financial chaos.

"The situation was becoming desperate; I had no choice," says Barros. "I have two children and they have the right to grow up dignified."

This wave of reverse migration is posing challenges for both the returnees and Spaniards. After seeing a large exodus of its residents for much of the 20th century, Spain is now struggling with its current role as a magnet for immigrants – from not only Latin America but Muslim countries as well, particularly Morocco.

Experts say the lines at Spain's Latin American consulates will only grow, as countries such as Colombia, Venezuela, and Argentina continue to stumble politically and financially, and societal tensions rise.

"In the midst of all this, anyone with a European passport, or who can get one by fair means or foul, will return [to Spain]," says Michael Derham, a lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Northumbria in England.

In 2001, according to Spain's Social Affairs and Employment Ministry, some 48,000 people returned to Spain, the largest number since 1978, following Spain's transition to democracy. From 1999 to 2001, the number of those returning doubled, and from certain countries, the numbers increased by more than fourfold. Fifteen hundred emigrants returned from Argentina in 1999; the number surged to 6,539 in 2001.

Barros packed her bags in April 2001 for La Coruña, in Spain's Atlantic coastal province of Galicia, where her grandfather was born. She left her children in Argentina until she could make a life for her family.

It has been a difficult transition. "The idea of being Argentine is very different than being Spanish," Barros says. "The air is different. Our souls hurt."

While bigger cities like Madrid or Barcelona attract most immigrants because jobs are more plentiful, many emigrants opt to return to their familial roots, though economic conditions there may not be favorable.

Guillermo Rodriguez García, the president of the Association for the Solidarity with Returning Galician Emigrants, says his group's membership tripled last year.

Argentina and Galicia have had close ties since the early 20th century. During the civil war, Argentina sent grain and meat to Galicia, and during the 1960s the Spanish province's expatriates in Latin America, known as "gallegos," boosted the Galician economy by sending money back home.

Today, shops boasting Argentine names like "Bar El Pibe" ("pibe" is slang for "guy" in Argentina) line La Coruña's working-class neighborhood, Las Conchiñas.

But some of the Argentine transplants say they feel rejected by Spain – in the form of denied visas, and difficulty getting hired and renting apartments.

Barros says the transition is a bureaucratic nightmare for the children and grandchildren of Spaniards who rightfully deserve papers but did not seek dual citizenship before leaving Latin America.

Part of the Spanish wariness stems from simple economics. "Returning emigrants means higher house prices, competition for few good jobs, lowering wage rates, infrastructure problems, more building and construction, more problems with water and sewage, more stress on public utilities and social services," says Mr. Derham.

According to the social affairs and employment ministry, based on the numbers of returning emigrants in the first four months of 2002, the government expects to spend $21 million in unemployment subsidies.

A mass exodus similar to Galicia's took place from the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of Africa, to Venezuela in the 1950s. As in Galicia, many islanders, isolated and with brewing nationalist sentiment, were driven out by hunger or Francisco Franco's dictatorship.

Their return home tends to be less traumatic, however. Many emigrants own small businesses or homes in both South America and Europe, providing a constant back and forth between the cultures.

Venezuela is known in the Canaries as the "Eighth Island" (the Canaries consist of seven separate islands). Throughout Tenerife, the chain's biggest island and a major transportation hub between Spain and Venezuela, South American food, music and slang are essential parts of Canary culture.

In 2001, 4,563 emigrants in Venezuela returned to Spain, up from 2,712 in 1999, as turmoil has rocked the Venezuelan political landscape. The number of returning emigrants from all Latin American countries is expected to be much higher, due to the number of "undocumented" emigrants who have returned to Spain.

Those facing the hardest transition are the elderly, who do not have access to pensions. Inflation and currency devaluation in Latin America have eroded pensions, and emigrants are not eligible for them in Spain.

"At a time when they should be at peace and retiring, they are experiencing a terrible moment," says Mr. Rodriguez.

Their children and grandchildren usually fare much better. "Those who left [in the 1950s] left with empty suitcases full of hope," says Zaida Rauseo, the consul general of the Venezuelan Consulate in Tenerife. "Now their families are returning with bags full of education and experience."

The return movement has provoked hostilities, but it has also revealed the bonds that many Spaniards and longtime residents share with Latin America.

Juan Sibes, who was born to Spanish parents in Argentina but returned to Galicia 20 years ago, is one of the behind-the-scenes figures who has helped new emigrants make La Coruña a viable home.

The owner of an Argentine pizza chain – where the community of emigrants tends to congregate – Mr. Sibes says he tries to offer employment to new arrivals and has helped house family members with housing.

When she stepped off the plane in Galicia with nowhere to go, Barros called an Argentine woman whom she had heard helped out new arrivals. Barros lived with the woman for a year until she could find her own apartment.

"I have met so many lovely people, who have given so much without asking for anything in return," she says.

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